Tea World

Lesson 27

Historical Background-Tea garden Labour of Assam

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The history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years.The Chinese have enjoyed tea for millennia.You have already come to know how the British introduced tea into India after they lost the monoly with China. Unlike tea plantations in China which are done on small-scale basis, from 100 to 200 bushes by every family as a cottager and sometimes from one acre to four or five acres of land, the tea plantation in Assam was started by the British East India Company on a large   scale.After the Yandaboo Treaty which brought the entire region under the company from Ahom kings, the British East India Company started to expand tea plantations.The East India Company was granted a charter in 1833. Under this   charter the Europeans   were granted to hold land on long term basis for the first time, that is, free land-holdings. This was the beginning of the colonial plantation economy. In 1838, the Colonial British Government had promulgated the first Waste-land Rules and in 1854, another more easy rules which facilitated the European people to expand the tea cultivation in Assam on easy terms for 99 years. Under the above Waste-land Rule, 1838 the British people could acquire vast areas of waste land (jungle-land) at free of cost and no land revenue had to be paid by them upto 75% of their land-holdings. For the remaining 25% also they had to pay a nominal rate of land revenue.But in 1861, Lord Canning framed another very easy rules applicable to British people through which they could purchase land through auctions for the first time. Very soon, these ‘wastelands’ were converted to ‘money-yielding-lands’ with the setting up of tea plantations in Upper Assam.

No doubt the British people were successful in building up the Indian tea industry by applying their qualifications, knowledge, skill, experiences, ability and farsightness.The land and labourers were two pre-requisites for expansion of the tea plantations. It is mentioned already how they acquired vast areas for tea plantation by promulgating rules.  But only the problem was the labourers.

For large amounts of forest clearing and setting up of tea gardens, a huge demand for labours arose. At that period the population of Assam was drastically reduced due to barbarous torture as well as killings by the Burmese (Man senas) from 1822 to 1826.The remaining people who were able to save themselves from the inhuman Burmese, did not want to work as labourer (the term used was Coolie) in the tea gardens. They wanted to enjoy a peaceful life. So, they refused to come to work in the tea-gardens.Initially, the planters brought skilled Chinese labourers from Singapore and Penang. But they also refused to do work like clearing forests as this was not mentioned in their contracts. Again the Chinese soon contracted diseases in this foreign land. Many died and the rest deserted. These Chinese at one time turned out to be a headache for the British as they demanded improved conditions for working. By 1860, the Chinese labourers completely disappeared. The British then recruited Nagas, who were forest dwellers. They were given the work of clearing forests while the Chinese worked in tea plantations. But they were not regular.

 Meanwhile, the planters also started to recruit the natives, whom they accused of being inherently lazy owing to their excessive intake of opium. Initially, the industry tried to function with the Bodo Kacharis who were the only Assamese that were willing to work in the tea gardens. But the number was inadequate and moreover, the employers seldom found them worthy to work in the plantation.Many natives refused to work in tea gardens and those who were engaged, they too turned out to be deserters and were hardly regular. They worked in the tea garden only when they needed money and then left without notice. All this added to the annoyance of British in its inability to find a compliant labour force.After these failed attempts, the British found its rightful labourers in the tribal people of central India.

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